The Future Comes Cheap in 2017’s Ghost in the Shell

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You likely are aware by now that Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of Shirow Masamune’s mainstay of contemporary sci-fi, Ghost in the Shell, is a bit of a mess. The cast is (unsurprisingly) lacking in Asian members, despite taking place in Eastern Asia, and its performance as a whole is uncharming, to say the least. The live-action film mines the original properties for their memorable imagery and plot elements but retains none of the accompanying depth and development. Ironically, in distancing itself from the original material, the plot seems to retread the same thematic ground that has been covered since Philip K Dick picked up a pen. What we are left with is a cookie-cutter dystopian revenge thriller popcorn flick, driven by hyper-violent action sequences, overly simplistic (and ultimately flawed) morality, and vague, non-committal anti-corporate leanings. This has already been said in better ways than this, by more capable writers than myself.

But I’m not here to talk about that. Instead, I’d like you to consider one of the only things GitS 2017 miraculously got right: the overall design.

Ghost in the Shell 2017

Don’t get me wrong. As far as adaptations go, Ghost in the Shell 2017 does not compare with its predecessors. Its use of color is gaudy at best, drab at worst. Its imitation of the 1995 version’s most iconic moments comes off as clumsy and ill-conceived. As of the time of this article’s creation, I have seen this movie twice (of my own free will, no less) because it manages to do something that cyberpunk as a whole has seemed to have forgotten how to do in recent years; it gives it’s setting a mass-produced feel, one fraught with the low quality of planned obsolescence.

This isn’t to say that it’s not filled with your typical cyberpunk tropes: the seemingly-endless cityscapes, the monolithic buildings, environments drenched in neon lighting; cutting-edge tech featured in some scenes, juxtaposed by jury-rigged, outdated setups in others. The moments that stand out to me aren’t the ones aped from the original, it’s Batou’s 90s-era Lotus Esprit cruising down patchwork tarmac streets. It’s the crude, voxelated holograms pimping out corporate products, towering a dozen stories high. It’s Kuze’s glitching stutter, indicative of a machine that has gone far too long without proper maintenance. It’s hookers wearing plastic clothing and gangsters with synthetic jaws missing their outer coverings. It’s the manifestation of corrupted memories, quickly decaying. Even Major’s signature visor appears less sophisticated in the live action version, featuring a single, coin-sized lens.

Batou’s 90s-era Lotus Esprit – Ghost in the Shell 2017

Some of these elements may be attributed to a desire to portray a retro-futuristic version of Ghost in the Shell’s Newport City. All things told, Ghost in the Shell 2017 cannot be defined as a “pretty” movie–not in the same way as the ‘95 version is. The lighting is too harsh, the seams of every hologram and street cyborg’s enhancements too visible. Whether it was intentional or not, the design of this movie serves as a reminder to us that technology is ephemeral and entropy is inevitable. Our building crumble over time and our phones, computers, cars, what-have-you, all need to be replaced eventually. For many of us, this simply is not an option, and most of us don’t have the ingenuity to make our old tech function as well or at better levels than before.

It’s not uncommon for science fiction to be used as a platform for commentary on class division. This dates back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, perhaps earlier. The image of poverty, especially among Hollywood types, tends to either be romanticized or sugarcoated. Recent offenders of the arguably-cyberpunk variety are Elysium (2013) and the Total Recall reboot (2012). Both feature restless blue-collar protagonists, whom we are told are struggling financially, but live in scenic future-apartments that are well-kept and are afforded certain amenities that most modem audiences would consider luxuries. In the interest of propelling the plot forward, the protagonists of both use their ‘moxie’ and ‘tenacity’ to cobble together solutions in order to single-handedly topple the ‘oppressive regime’ (although in the spirit of the original film, the majority of Total Recall’s plot likely occurs in Colin Farrell’s mind before his inevitable lobotomy).

Such squalor in Colin Farrel’s Total Recall apartment.

Those are possibly the worst examples of the misrepresentation of urban poverty among contemporary dystopian sci-fi. More commonly, though, I come across examples like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Personally, I love this game with a passion reserved for few joys in life, but as noble as its attempts to depict lower class struggles in a rapidly-changing world may be, it always seems to be overshadowed by the glamor of the Cyber Renaissance and all it brings with it. This is best exemplified by Hengsha Island, a district of Shanghai that literally separates the fortunate few from the rest of the rabble by stacking universities and corporate headquarters almost literally on the backs of smaller, tightly-packed apartment buildings, industrial complexes, and cheap entertainment districts rife with urban decay. I should despise this literalization of class division much in the same way that 1984’s readers quickly come to despise the Ministry of Truth’s vandalization of London’s skyline, but I find myself too in awe of its originality, its inventiveness. There is a certain undeniable decadence to it, a profound sense of wonder surrounding this symbol of subjugation.

Hengsha Island, Deus Ex: Human Revolution

But isn’t this the lure of the genre in the first place? When Gaff’s police spinner soars towards the Tyrell Corporation headquarters, an incomparable mountain of light and steel, the very existence of which implies an irrational amount of power in too few hands, we are meant to feel our breaths stolen from us. If cyberpunk was not populated by these symbols of oppression, if the nightclubs weren’t stylish, if the cutting-edge technology wasn’t irresistible despite the ramifications, the pull might not be as strong.

Blade Runner Tyrell Corporation HQ
Tyrell Corporation Headquarters, Blade Runner

More often than not, cyberpunk serves as a thought experiment. It tries to show us how our technology could set artificial, unbending restrictions on our potentials as individuals. But oftentimes, against my better judgment, I find a part of myself wishing I could be a part of these dark, moody visions of what’s to come. Somehow, they’re still better than my own reality.

The truth is this: life in our own future won’t likely be as sexy as Tron: Legacy might have you believe. Our tech gets old and breaks, and some of us can’t afford to present ourselves as sleek and stylish day in and day out. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to represent this in science fiction without coming across as uninteresting or arbitrary. Including mundane technology next to the futuristic in an urban society (as seen in Strange Days) will potentially throw the audience off. If society has devolved to the point that anachronisms don’t feel out of place (as seen in films like Looper) the question of whether or not the tale even qualifies as cyberpunk might arise.

Looper pocket watch
Joe’s pocket watch from Looper

But somehow, this year’s Ghost in the Shell manages to present to us what we need to see: a world made from discardable things that we cannot afford to discard. Its trash-and-rubble-littered settings and glitching devices remind us that the scrappy underdogs and hackers are few and far between, and even they can only do so much in the face of a world where nothing is built to last. It’s not nearly a perfect film, but even so, it manages to erode ever so slightly the façade of glamorous imagery surrounding modern cyberpunk, and it does it in a way that works to the film’s advantage. There is value in this, and we would be wise to heed its warnings. Because if we don’t, we’ll be too eager to invite totalitarian wolves in sheep’s clothing in to stay when they come knocking on our doors.

You can get a copy of Ghost in the Shell 2017 here.


The header is art by Josan Gonzalez

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